Wednesday, June 30, 2004

24. We are free to disagree

Ever since September 11, 2001, I have received chain emails promoting American culture, value and ideology. The topics range from immigration and religion to war and language. Almost always pro-American, it adamantly demands that American culture be defined and defended. Its definition maintains that immigrants are no longer welcome; that non-Christian religions and the non-religious should "sit down and shut up." It seeks to present anti-war views as somehow anti-American. And that those that can't speak English need to either learn or get out. The worst promote racism, bash homosexuals, seek to boycott countries that think for themselves and some even defend prisoner torture. The emails are often well written, inspirational (to some) and full of examples. They usually end with the line, "If you agree, pass this email to all your friends. If you don't agree, delete."

I usually don't agree, at least with all the ideas suggested. And I usually do just delete it, for I am afforded the opportunity to present my opinions here. But it is interesting that they never invite dissent or conversation of the issues. A couple of times I have hit "reply all" and suggested alternate viewpoints- usually without reply.

The fundamental problem with most of these emails is the lack of knowledge plaguing this country in two areas: American history and the difference between civil rights and majority opinion. These emails and their ideas are fashionable because they usually present patriotic themes and popular opinion. Unfortunately, they are also filled with bias, prejudice and a lack of understanding of, in particular, the first amendment.

How soon most have forgotten that only a few generations prior did their great grandparents or great-great grandparents cross the Atlantic to chase their dreams- whether it was for religious freedom, financial opportunity or simply the chance to start over. How many of them were native to a tongue other than English? We all need to be reminded that the only true American culture is that of the Native Americans. Simply because our families immigrated generations ago should not give us the right to turn away all those who want to be Americans, whose only fault is being born a couple of generations too late.

I can understand how living in a democracy can muddle the difference between civil rights and majority rules. Often from the time of our childhood, differences are settled by taking a vote. And in most cases, this is quite the appropriate solution. This is a democracy and it works well up until the point in which it infringes on the rights afforded to individuals by the Constitution, and specifically, the first amendment. A majority decision does not, necessarily, constitute the right decision. If six out of seven children vote to beat up and take the money from the "rich kid," have they made the right decision according to the law and the rights of the "rich kid?"

The freedom of religion and the freedom of speech are two such rights protected by the Constitution unto individuals. They are protected regardless of how many people agree or disagree. Our founders went to great lengths to ensure this- "Give me liberty or give me death!" I have already spoken in previous columns on the subject of religion and the separation of church and state. Individuals have the right to believe or not to believe whatever they wish without the fear of discrimination and absent of a national religion that favors one over another.

The freedom of speech guarantees the right to speak-out in a public forum against the government and its policies. Those who spoke out against the war were exercising their free speech rights precisely as they were intended to be used. It is shameful that many sought to portray them as unpatriotic and censor their views. Patriotism is not agreeing with whatever the government endeavors, rather it is passionate and zealous loyalty. Those who care about the country have an obligation to express their opinions as to its best interests. Mindless obedience is not patriotic; we must always ask what is right, what are the consequences.? Imagine now if everyone would have just taken the President at his word.

Our national motto (in Latin, ponder the irony), e pluribus, unum, which means "of many, one," was born out of ethnic and cultural diversity. To me it means, out of many peoples, religions, ideas; one united country united and committed to the democratic experiment as outlined in the Constitution. Our forefathers rebelled against tyranny as they inspired and led revolution. They fought for freedom, for liberty- not for censorship, not for discrimination.

Finally, let us not forget the Statue of Liberty that for now more than a century has greeted newcomers to this country. Donated by the French people in 1884 commemorating the alliance between France and the United States during the American Revolution (more irony), it depicts a woman escaping the chains of tyranny, holding holding a burning torch of liberty. Inscribed in bronze at the base of the statue isis the sonnet "The New Colossus" by the American poet Emma Lazarus. It reads in part "... "Keep, ancient land, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Alas, from the emails I sometimes receive, some mightmay wish her bronze base inscription to instead read, "Accepting white, English-speaking Christian heterosexuals that will quietly conform to government crusades of economy and power. All others need not apply."

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